Philosophers: Stop Being Self-Indulgent and Start Being Like Daniel Dennett, says Daniel Dennett


Daniel Dennett (Tufts) does seem to say that, but the real topic of this post is the good question he raises about how to figure out whether the kind of philosophy you’re doing is worth doing. We’ll get to that. But first, check out the following, from what might be the most clickbait-titled-but-just-for-academic-philosophers-article-ever-to-appear-on-a-mainstream-website:

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.” Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “willfully cut off from any serious issues”

…much of philosophy is little more than a “luxury decoration on society,” and he complains many of the questions studied in both analytic and continental philosophy are “idle—just games.”

Those are quotes and paraphrases of Dennett, according to Olivia Goldhill, who has written this and several other philosophy-related articles for Quartz. 

Ms. Goldhill also reports Dennett saying:

For philosophers to be of real use, they should engage with the world, he says—as he does alongside those in interdisciplinary fields, such as philosophy of biology, philosophy of mathematics, or ethics.

To be on the safe side—that is, to get a better sense of what might be missing—I contacted Professor Dennett, who clarified that while the article might have given the impression that the foregoing were quotes from a prepared paper, they were instead from an impromptu interview. Still, while in retrospect he might have put some of the points a bit differently, he says, he doesn’t disagree with the quotes and paraphrases.

In fact, as he pointed out, he has said much of this before, pointing to his 2006 paper, “Higher Order Truths About Chmess” (which was also a chapter in his book, Intuition Pumps).

Here’s an excerpt from that paper:

Some philosophical research projects—or problematics, to speak with the more literary types—are rather like working out the truths of chess. A set of mutually agreed upon rules are presupposed—and seldom discussed—and the implications of those rules are worked out, articulated, debated, refined. So far, so good. Chess is a deep and important human artifact, about which much of value has been written. But some philosophical research projects are more like working out the truths of chmess. Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. I just invented it—though no doubt others have explored it in depth to see if it is worth playing. Probably it isn’t. It probably has other names. I didn’t bother investigating these questions because although they have true answers, they just aren’t worth my time and energy to discover. Or so I think. There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess, such as the following:

1. Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is flawed: he overlooks the following possibility …

2. Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma (1975), which has recently been challenged by Garfinkle (2002) …

Now none of this is child’s play. In fact, one might be able to demonstrate considerable brilliance in the group activity of working out the higher-order truths of chmess. Here is where Donald Hebb’s dictum comes in handy: “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well”…

Of course some people are quite content to find a congenial group of smart people with whom to share ‘‘the fun of discovery, the pleasures of cooperation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement,’’ as John Austin once put it (see Austin 1961, p. 175), without worrying about whether the joint task is worth doing. And if enough people do it, it eventually becomes a phenomenon in its own right, worth studying. As Burton Dreben used to say to the graduate students at Harvard, ‘‘Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship.’’ Some garbage is more important than other garbage, however, and it’s hard to decide which of it is worthy of scholarship.

So what to make of this?

Despite the teasing title of this post (don’t get me wrong, I have a good deal of admiration for Professor Dennett), I can see what he is getting at here:

People like to do what they’re good at, and often on that basis are led to believe that what they like to do is good. Philosophers are people, too, and so may be subject to this bias. But as philosophers, we’re relatively thoughtful people, and so each of us has probably wondered whether what we do when we do philosophy matters—that is, whether it has any value“What’s the point?”, we’ve each asked ourselves. I hope.

So far so good. But then things move a bit too quickly in answering that question. He seems to be saying that philosophy is valuable insofar as it is good at being useful.

So, first, one might wonder what he means by usefulness.

Second, one might wonder why we should agree to judge the value of all philosophy by the metric of usefulness.

Certainly some philosophy is valuable in part because it is also useful, but all? No. We all know that not everything that’s valuable is valuable because it’s useful (unless we define “useful” in an unhelpfully broad way), and that’s true of philosophy, too.

Third, even if we stick with something like “usefulness”, which at least sounds relatively tractable, how do we know how useful the philosophy we’re doing is?

On this last question, Dennett gives some suggestions (in “Chmess”):

One good test to make sure you’re not just exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers actually play the game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care whether you’re right about whether Jones’ counterexample works against Smith’s principle? Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘‘get it,’’ you really should consider the hypothesis that you’re following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap…

But then takes them back:

The tests I have mentioned—seeing if folks outside philosophy, or bright undergraduates, can be made to care—are only warning signs, not definitive. Certainly there have been, and will be, forbiddingly abstruse and difficult topics of philosophical investigation well worth pursuing, in spite of the fact that the uninitiated remain unimpressed. I certainly don’t want to discourage explorations that defy the ambient presumptions about what is interesting and important. On the contrary, the best bold strokes in the field will almost always be met by stony incredulity or ridicule at first, and these should not deter you.

Gah!

Perhaps in the 10 years between “Higher Order Truths about Chmess” and the Quartz piece Dennett has figured out how we can know whether a branch of philosophy is useful or otherwise worthwhile. He must have, as he confidently declares “analytic metaphysics” to be “self-indulgent, clever play” that’s “willfully cut off from any serious issues” and populated by philosophers who “concoct cute counterarguments that require neither technical training nor empirical knowledge.”

Maybe you’re wondering why “analytic metaphysics” is the primary target. What is the criteria it meets in order to merit these condemnations that other branches of philosophy, including, say, logic or epistemology or ethics, fail to meet? Something tells me the analytic metaphysicians in the audience might have something to say about that. But not just them.

The recipe for Chmess Pie calls for one more tablespoon of butter than the recipe for Chess Pie.

The recipe for Chmess Pie calls for one more tablespoon of butter than the recipe for Chess Pie.

 

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Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

The elephant in the room that I suspect a lot of people will avoid by default is this set of claims, or some variation on them:

* Some fields are worth more attention because [reasons]
* Some fields are more valuable than others because [reasons]
* We should pursue one field more than another field because [reasons]

These seem obviously true of at least some fields, because virtually everyone can come up with fields of study so useless or antiquated (phrenology, to name an uncontroversial one) that they’re not worth considering fields of study — but when it comes time to actually pick a specific field that people study *now* that fits this label, suddenly everyone acts like you’ve done something unthinkable. It’s obvious why: your friends might study the thing you’re bashing and you don’t want to piss off your friends. But clearly this needs to happen if we’re to keep anything for remembering in the long term, and avoiding or meandering around the topic doesn’t make anything better.Report

Gray
Gray
5 years ago

I dunno, this seems to miss the point that Dennett is making, which isn’t just that much analytic metaphysics is useless, but that it’s not actually engaged with anything like the reality that it assumes itself to be engaged with. In other words, in Dennett’s view it’s often an in-group back and forth arguing about the rules of chmeality, not reality, and that’s why it’s not worth doing, not because it has no utility (although that might be true of it also), but because it’s quibbling over a fictional construct that has no bearing on the real thing? Not saying I agree with him, but the objection should be addressed at his assumption that metaphysics isn’t addressing anything real, rather than that any philosophy with questionable utility isn’t worth doing, which I’m not sure is the position he holds, since a fair chunk of his own work could probably fall under that category.Report

Seadragon
Seadragon
Reply to  Gray
5 years ago

This seems really wrong. Reality is reality. It’s not like chess and chmess. There’s one way the world actually is. Why think that metaphysicians are talking about chmeality? One would need to give an argument to the effect that they are not glomming onto reality at all, but are rather making something up and talking about that thing.

I think there is a lot wrong with a lot of philosophy done today, and I have some sympathy with (a small amount of) what Dennett is saying, but this sounds like a kind of spelling out of the “where is the REAL WORLD importance of what you are doing” objection that gets things really wrong. Most metaphysicians are realists about what they are talking about, not chmealists. And these days most are responsive to and respectful of how physics narrows the available views in logical space. So, it seems to me they are talking about the same reality that e.g. physicists are. Why posit a made-up place and talk about that? No one is doing that. Of course, we might be getting things wrong, and we might not be making progress, and there might be important epistemic problems with what we are doing, but the target of inquiry is definitively reality, not chmeality.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Seadragon
5 years ago

“Reality is reality. It’s not like chess and chmess. There’s one way the world actually is. Why think that metaphysicians are talking about chmeality? One would need to give an argument to the effect that they are not glomming onto reality at all, but are rather making something up and talking about that thing.”

The problem is that modal metaphysics primarily *isn’t* concerned with the actual world but with what’s merely possible, like gunk, extended simples, and time travel cases where things are parts of themselves. These arguments typically don’t deal with any scientific evidence about the actual world but are instead based on armchair intuitions. Frankly, it is very difficult for me to see how these things can be considered real possibilities that are grounded in the structure of physical reality (e.g., like nomologically possible paths that particles might take in a vacuum) rather than merely imagined scenarios that are allowed by our concepts.Report

GS
GS
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

Possible worlds can tell us about the actual world though (e.g. Chalmers or Plantinga-style modal arguments for dualism). So not all possible worlds talk is irrelevant to the actual world.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Gray
5 years ago

Right. I take Dennett’s real point to be more along the lines of the criticisms given by Ladyman and Ross in “Everything Must Go”. The problem is that a lot of analytic metaphysics just doesn’t seem to deal with the right evidence to make claims about reality. E.g., analytic mereology doesn’t really pay any attention to how the notion of parthood is actually used in scientific theorizing. Most scientific theories will say something about the mereological structure of the things they study. That’s not to say that you should just take everything scientists say about parts at face value. But you should at least try to provide models for these theories using different mereological systems and see if they do the job. Instead it’s all conducted from the armchair. We know a priori from intuition that parthood is transitive and so much the worse for any theory that violates this principle, even if it is successful and there’s no other way of capturing its claims. Similarly for the nature of time. A lot of intuition and natural language semantics and far too little physics. (Frankly, I think the latter should be weighted so heavily that it renders the former irrelevant: your semantic theory better match our best theory of physics, not vice versa.)Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Yes, His own work does not appear to stand as a counter-example. Has it shown any signs of usefulness yet? Something here about the pot and the kettle.Report

William
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

To take a charitable view of what Dennett might say, in his book Consciouness Explained he offered some empirical predictions that he believed followed from his theory of mind. So in the sense that driving scientific investigation is productive, he is fairly productive.Report

Dan
Dan
Reply to  William
5 years ago

Dennett’s views about the mind do lead to certain empirical predictions. But the fact that they lead to empirical predictions does not count in favor of his view. I’m not sure you’re saying this, but I’ve heard it said and I get the impression he thinks it.

Suppose I’m an apocalyptic epiphenomenalist: I think that phenomenal properties merely correspond to physical brain states..,. but not for long. In exactly one year, it’s lights out for everyone. That’s an empirical prediction of a sort, but the mere fact that I’m making a prediction doesn’t count for anything. My view has to be judged on its own merits.

Similarly, suppose apocalyptic epiphenomenalism catches on. Everyone subscribes to AE now, even once-hard-nosed-scientists! Surely the popularity of my view doesn’t count in favor of it either. Maybe the popularity and influence of AE gives us *some* prima facie evidence to believe it’s right, but I don’t think such prima facie evidence counts for much.Report

William
Reply to  Dan
5 years ago

I’m not saying Dennett is right (I don’t think he is), I’m saying his philosophical beliefs are not very self-indulgent, which was the accusation brought against them. I think empirical predictions providing interesting leads for scientific progress count in favour of non-self-indulgence, it sounds less self-indulgent to me than say, string theory.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  William
5 years ago

String theory has had a significant impact on several mainstream areas in mathematics, on much of the parametrisations being used to investigate the Higgs mechanism at CERN, and (via dualities) has opened up an entirely new calculational approach to various knotty problems in nuclear and particle physics. It would be nice if philosophers who (I suspect) know almost literally nothing about it could stop using it as a punchbag – if only to maintain the moral high ground when criticising Hawking, Krauss et al.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

Dennett’s ideas have been highly influential in, for example, the methodology of cognitive ethology and cognitive developmental psychology.Report

metaphysicus
metaphysicus
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

For example, doesn’t he have a published criticism of the design argument?Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

You’re too hard on Dennett. Yes, ‘usefulness’ is a tricky concept, and it is in danger of getting sucked into one or the other of those poles you mention; but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fruitful way of using the term that falls between those poles. And this isn’t just some logical possibility, probably: we all use the term in some such fruitful middle way all the time. There’s thus a very good chance that we are doing so in a deeply sensible way. According to this understanding, it’s quite sensible that all philosophy should be useful. After all, our lives – and certainly the public funding universities received – are not our own, we have a continuing obligation to in some vague sense be responsible citizens, use our privilege and luck to fight injustice, whatever. We shouldn’t disclaim philosophy’s defence on such a technicality as not being able to articulate this usage of ‘useful’! To do so would be to evade the question by playing precisely the sort of game that Dennett is criticising us for playing, and no-one is going to be fooled by our bait and switch but us!

So much for the general worry. Concerning the particular worry, how we can know whether some specific thing is useful – I don’t think we can have an answer to that. Hell even doctors worry about that. But one might hope that a discipline that systematically fails to consider the question, that even considers the question in poor taste, has little hope of being useful. So the answer is going to be structural: we reconfigure our priorities such that we are constantly mindful of the usefulness of what we’re doing or proposing. One way this could be done: stop accepting ‘because I like it’ or ‘because I’m good at it’ as adequate answers for why someone is doing philosophy. I’m deeply saddened by the number of philosophers I’ve met who think that these are acceptable answers. Pace JW in the OP, too many philosophers have NOT seriously considered that philosophy is not worth their doing.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  JCM
5 years ago

(Edit: “But one might THINK that a discipline that systematically fails…”)Report

A. Brooker
A. Brooker
Reply to  JCM
3 years ago

I quite like Dennett’s proposed criteria tbh. The term “useful” got me thinking about the arts – not, strictly speaking, “useful”, but definitely “enriching” to a lot of people – with or without any kind of specialism in the musical or artistic techniques employed.

In the case a person is a self-funded philosophy, evidently, they can think about whatever they like. IN the case they are funded by some state , as is usually the case for university funded academics and postgraduates, you could realistically ask of that funding that it leads to something that is likely to be “enriching” to a broader pool of people besides just the academic community itself. If that ethos is in place from one generation to the next it ensures, surely, that the products of philosophy remain to a degree linked to the actual cultural social technological theoretical artistic preoccupations of the wider world in which the philosophical enquiries are taking place.

The interest shown by “bright undergraduates” could definitely provide a good indication to a professor whether they are at least in some general sense “in tune” to the wider intellectual spirit of the times.

moreover, this approach is actually good for the professors themselves, presumably – since more of them are likely to produce work that they can, maybe, sell in some form or other, reducing a little the financial pressures on themselves – or giving them more disposable income to explore more of the world, meet more people, converse more widely with others outside of their faculties, and so forth.

I think it can only be healthy really. We OUGHT to be entering a time of increasing polymathy , many of the disciplines that have been traditionally silo-ed into specific departments critically depends upon one another to reach the deeper understanding of both activities. Voices from outside ones own department can serve as “objective observers” onto the activities which goes on inside the department, and reveal , maybe, the ways in which an internal discourse is drifting into sophistry, becoming “unmoored” as a result of too few of the “peers” who review the papers being conscious of the context , structure, style, etc, of their work, ,in relation to other human activities.

It would be extremely surprising given the difficulty of articulating precisely the essential concepts of metaphysics if there was not a substantial amount that was a kind of system of “unreal” definitions, that reflects more the human struggle to articulate the abstract structure of our minds , and the world (maybe impossible) , rather than corresponding to any “reality” outside of the system of language structures which has evolved as a result of the activity of metaphysics. To some degree metaphysics is playing catchup through history with theories fo physics and theories of neuroscience, which has the edge, since those are empirical disciplines. It’s unlikely that much of the early christian metaphysics, say, from the medieval period, is going to be regarded as analytically satisfactory in the present age – so that would have to be filed under “history of ideas” rather than under any serious attempt to describe the world in which we actually do live.

I think a good deal of the appeals to authority found in philosophical work might likewise be filed under “history of ideas” and it would be a worthwhile activity to attempt to separate all such , from the rest. What is active today – what might be true – compared to what is actually just falling into some “tradition of thought”, and may well be studied, to shine a light upon how people at a certain period in history did think (very interesting in its own right), but not properly an “active” philosophy – it’s another subject, really.

To add to Dennett’s proposed “difficult case” of the very obscure investigation which is nonetheless useful – perhaps ambition might be a good criterion there. If the ambition is merely to test Jones’ propositions (which is some convoluted modal logic statements which may or may not be true under such and such theory that no one really thinks is true anyway…) and this is an obsessive enquiry going on for years, that might be not worth doing; i’d say it probably definitely isn’t worth doing (on state grants – if you self-fund, again, go for it!); but if the ambition level is high, say, a person looking into obscure corners of things does so in the hopes of bringing about a big, original , synthesis, striking out now ground in a way that might be genuinely provocative, new, a great intellectual talking point , this kind of thing, then i reckon that is worth funding. Ambition is good. Dithering and fiddling about with obscure propositional logic constructions probably isn’t. (It’;s actually more or less what computer programmers do all the time and they ahve a lot of “productive output” to show for it, not just reams of dubious debatable findings….. )

I might also add a further “useful” philosophy style: That which offers GUIDANCE to humans, in some way, about which there appears to be widespread confusion in society, and especially in ways which appears to be threatening the political stability of the democracy in which the reseracher themselves lives. Because, this is for the good of all, but also, for the good of that very philosophy and their department, in the long run.

I feel like philosophers are people who ought to be able to analyse clearly the causes of many of the follies that are actively destabilising to the political system itself; and thus, could do more, to contribute their intelligence to the mix in order to “protect” liberal philosophies and democracies in ways that can reach more people, and thus, help to ensure a more peaceful future for us all.

There has been an enormous change in the connectedness of the world and with technology it is quite likely that entirely new systems of democracy could be created, its likely that “personal identity” will be a particularly important topic on multiple dimensions this century, its likely we will have a huge volume of data to study to understand how people engage in dialogues, its likely new theories of language and of the functioning of the mind will become available, its likely that secular/religious frictions and tensions will continue, its likely that the general public will continue to be responsive to political actors and media in a wide variety of ways that, probably, philosophers could be actively exploring – and even from quite a foundational basis in metaphysics itself, in some cases.

I’d like to see them “doing their bit” i suppose. I think this would create a much more “exciting” spirit in the philosophy faculty also. And one which would likely increase the numebrs of student applications and so forth (all good for the final outputs in terms of total philosophy created, right.).Report

Carl Brownson
Carl Brownson
5 years ago

Mozart was a “luxury decoration on society.” The Parthenon. Macbeth.

I don’t agree with the charge, but if it were true? Since when are philosophers, of all people, put off by the charge that their work is intrinsically rather than instrumentally good?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Carl Brownson
5 years ago

Mozart, the Parthenon and Macbeth bring a lot of pleasure to people. That makes them useful in my book. I think that philosophy could bring a lot of pleasure to people too, if we helped to make it available to them in a form that they can understand. I can see the pleasure gained from philosophy as being an important intrinsic good, but not if the only people who experience that pleasure are professional philosophers.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
5 years ago

I think one of the reasons analytic metaphysics gets singled out is because one of the figures who is supposed to have breathed life back into it, Saul Kripke, has the attitude that “the idea that philosophy should be relevant to life is a modern idea. A lot of philosophy does not have relevance to life” and “the intention of philosophy was never to be relevant to life.” I think Kripke is clearly wrong about this and I’ve said as much a number of times. That said, his attitude toward metaphysics has certainly been taken on by a number of very prominent analytic philosophers.Report

Tristan Haze
5 years ago

Here’s a thought that may suggest a slightly rosier picture.

When I was (re-)reading Dennett’s ‘chmess’ bit, I wondered: but would there really be that kind of disputation in the chmess case? I.e. the sort which pattern-matches with the long-running, apparently almost unresolvable disagreements we find all through analytic philosophy? Wouldn’t the theory of chmess, if it were pursued by many people with energy, proceed quite steadily by comparison, accumulating more and more widely agreed upon ‘results’?

At first, that was just an isolated worry, but now it occurs to me that this may be a very important difference in the present context. Supposing there is this kind of difference, maybe there is more value in the suspect analytic philosophy practices than in the theory of chmess, because of what the chronic, peculiar disputes which occur in philosophy but not in the theory of chmess may lead to. In wrestling with those, we might for instance learn certain transferrable lessons. And even from a signalling point of view, the qualities the best practitioners demonstrate may be finer and rarer.

(Not to say I don’t think a lot of analytic philosophy papers are crap.)Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

The idea that philosophy should be relevant to life is a modern idea?

Really? I suppose it’s an opinion but this may be truly the stupidest remark I’ve come across in the entire time that I’ve studied philosophy. I cannot understand how anyone could arrive at it. If we find that philosophy is not relevant and useful then this would not necessarily be the fault of philosophy, so perhaps more caution would be wise when disparaging it.

To say that philosophy is not relevant to life or not useful is to say that one is not a good enough philosopher to make it so. It says nothing at all about philosophy except that it isn’t easy. .Report

Bmishop
Bmishop
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

“To say that philosophy is not relevant to life or not useful is to say that one is not a good enough philosopher to make it so. It says nothing at all about philosophy except that it isn’t easy.”

PeterJ, I think this trades on an ambiguity in the meaning of ‘philosophy’, which might be taken to mean something like (1) a general activity/pursuit/method, or (2) a body of research/current research areas or topics. When people say that philosophy is not relevant to life or useful, they seem to be meaning it in the second sense. Dennett would agree with you that a good philosopher (in the first sense) could make it relevant to life. (That’s what he takes himself to be doing.)Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Bmishop
5 years ago

Bmishop – Yes, I’d agree that there is lot of ambiguity in the terms here. I can understand it when someone argues that philosophy is not relevant to life since this is a report on their experience of doing philosophy, but to suggest that the idea that it should be relevant to life is a new one is to adopt a definition of philosophy that does not compute.

If, as you say, Dennett takes himself to making philosophy relevant to life, then he should perhaps say a bit less until he makes some progress. I don’t understand his approach. He ignores metaphysics, writes it off as a waste of time, then insists that everyone else should do the same. I cannot imagine a less philosophical or less scholarly approach to philosophy and knowledge or one less likely to be useful or relevant to anything. He even tries to solve consciousness without reference to metaphysics, an approach that makes one wonder whether he is a philosopher at all. His view of the ineffectiveness of much of philosophy as it currently is would be correct in my opinion, but I would cite him as an example. He argues from a position of incomprehension and he ought to be taking this into account. I do not need his advice and would warn my students against it if I had any.Report

Bryan Frances
5 years ago

Sorry, but I can’t help thinking that Dennett is just being obtuse. In analytic metaphysics one can usually take a standard problem and put it in the form of a small number of claims that are individually highly plausible yet apparently jointly inconsistent. When one does that, one has demonstrated that there is a deep problem there, about existence, time, parthood, or whatever. One has just two options regarding the claims: some are not true despite appearances, or they are all true and the apparent inconsistency was merely apparent–which means there is some very subtle equivocation in the claims. One has to make a choice and defend it. No BSing allowed.

Maybe Dennett doesn’t think those notions (existence, time, parthood, etc.) are worthwhile topics. That’s nice; like I care what he thinks.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Bryan Frances
5 years ago

“One has just two options regarding the claims: some are not true despite appearances, or they are all true and the apparent inconsistency was merely apparent–which means there is some very subtle equivocation in the claims. One has to make a choice and defend it. No BSing allowed.”

There is also a third option: being agnostic about the claims. As a verificationist, I choose this option. In the case of genuinely metaphysical claims, anything else than agnosticism would be arbitrary. Since I am agnostic about the claims (at least if there is no empirical way of checking whether they are true or false), I see no reason to try to resolve the puzzle. Instead, I can just ignore it.Report

Bryan Frances
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
5 years ago

You ignore inconsistency? When the claims in the collection are commonsensical (e.g., ‘There are statues’)?Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  Bryan Frances
5 years ago

Whether this claim is “commonsensical” is irrelevant. We have a concept of “statues”, and we have an everyday concept of “exists”, and we have evidence that statues exist. This is what matters.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Bryan Frances
5 years ago

I don’t trust intuitions and common sense when trying to find out interesting, reliable generalizations about the nature of the world.

. I was reading Austere Realism by Horgan and Potrc the other day. They claim to be following common sense in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis fashion which leads them from puzzles about ordinary objects to the claim that there is only one object, the entire cosmos, the blobject. It is a good case study of what is wrong with the methodology of contemporary analytic metaphysics.

Common sense might be inconsistent. So what? Why would the inconsistency of common sense be a good reason to start making up arbitrary, epistemically unjustified, purely speculative metaphysical postulations?Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  Bryan Frances
5 years ago

Another option is that the claims are not sufficiently well defined, or that their scope is limited. One cause of this may be that the claims are articulated in human language. Another cause may be that they are based on concepts from a specific model of the world.

Could you give an example of such conflicting claims?Report

Concerned Philosopher
Concerned Philosopher
5 years ago

If you can’t answer the questions “What is this good for? What implications does it have (regarding our world, not “alternate possible world X”)? What can we do with this? Why should we care?” convincingly, don’t be surprised or upset when people, students included, don’t care.

Moreover, I think there might be an ethical situation on our hands. The world is plagued with dire problems and some of our most brilliant minds are concentrating almost exclusively on sterile abstractions. Even Russell recognized the need for philosophers, regardless of their AOS, to be involved in pertinent, worldly discussions.Report

harry b
5 years ago

So, total agreement with Dennett.

But. This doesn’t distinguish philosophy from most other disciplines. Take Literature (I take it that I don’t need to say more). But also Sociology and Economics. Very smart (and eminent) people in these disciplines build up a skill set, and then look for problems that fit their skill set, rather than looking for problems that are important (that matter — solving which might be useful) and developing the tools to address them. The latter is much riskier, more time consuming, and difficult, but it is what you would do if you wanted to be useful.

I’m not making excuses, just observing that we’re not distinctive.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Dennett fails to mention the biggest problem contributing the lack of usefulness in philosophy. Our philosophical work fails to get to the folk outside of professional philosophy. Regardless of what you are working on, if your ideas never get to people, your ideas aren’t going to help them. Personally, I think that analytic metaphysics has a lot to offer, but it certainly doesn’t have anything to offer to someone who is never exposed to it in a form that they can understand. The criminal self-indulgence of philosophers, in my opinion, lies not primarily in what we study, but in the fact that we keep our understanding to ourselves, as if the point of professional philosophy is to benefit professional philosophers. Publishing work to be read by those who are not professional philosophers is considered unimportant compared to the work we publish for one another.Report

William
5 years ago

As a wide-eyed undergraduate, I may suggest another field falling into this category of hard-to-convince-of-their-usefulness: philosophy of action. I seem to remember a Nietzsche quote along the lines of it is evidence of a failure of philosophy that such an obviously existing thing like akrasia is still a live topic. It also to me seems to have similar qualities to Chmess, it analyzes a sort of idealized picture of the mind, and because there are clear cut rules it produces results within a given theory.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  William
5 years ago

William, you might be pleased to hear that philosophy of action has come a very long way since Nieztsche. In fact, before Nietzsche (and until Anscombe), there was only one book devoted to the subject: Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. (The very idea of philosophy of action as a discrete field postdates Nietzsche by nearly a century.)

I encourage you to seek out some of the amazing work that’s been done on action and moral psychology — Anscombe, Arpaly, Dancy, Davidson, Hornsby, Korsgaard, McDowell, Thompson, Thomson, Setiya (or any of the classics on free will — Frankfurt & van Inwagen and so on). You’ll pretty quickly find that, despite debts to Aristotle, Kant, etc., the debate has carefully worked out issues that the Old Greats never dreamed of.

For instance, does intentional action require special knowledge of what one is doing? What is the significance of the idea of direction of fit? What is the relationship between motivating and normative reasons? And yes, even the classic, Is weakness of will possible? (And if I may stump for my own current favorite question, is all motivation goal-oriented, as Aristotle and Hume and Kant thought, or are we sometimes moved by facts about the past and present? This particular question was just invisible before Anscombe, and it didn’t receive real treatment until a paper by her student Anselm Müller in 2011.)Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
5 years ago

(Correction: shouldn’t have included weakness of will, or arguably practical knowledge, in that last list. I was being absent-minded. But even if the questions aren’t original to the last century, some answers definitely are!)Report

William
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
5 years ago

You seem to be missing the thrust of Dennett’s claim (and Nietzsche’s as well). He isn’t claiming that there isn’t progress being made in to use his example, analytic metaphysics. He’s claiming that it is self-indulgent and that investment of time does not match how worthwhile the field is.

For instance, I occasionally have the experience of my actions not lining up with what I believe to be the right thing to do. But do I *really* believe that the thing I fail to do is the right course of action if I do not act on the belief? Sorting out that question is doable in philosophy of action, but does the answer really matter? I fail to see its importance. While there is plenty of work done on the question (by Davidson, Hare, among others), that doesn’t mean it matters, and that seems to be the sort of argument you’re using to counter Dennett’s claim in my application of it to philosophy of action.

Along with the Nietzsche quote, Nietzsche point was that *of course* akrasia exists. If an argument hoodwinks you out of that brute fact of phenomenological experience, then the argument needs to be reexamined and not the experience. The sense in which maybe you don’t *really* believe something if you fail to act in accordance with your belief is not an interesting sense of the word believe to me (or I imagine, to psychologists for whom you’ve just left a definition of belief outside the realm of empirical or phenomenological investigation). This sort of hoodwinking is very likely to occur when you’re idealizing the mind to the point that philosophy of action does, and that is a criticism of philosophy of action, whether not philosophy of action existed as a discrete field when Nietzsche was writing it.

In fact it sounds very much like chmess to me. It’s like a human mind, except that we make categories like beliefs and desires, and state that something from both is required for action (in the case of Davidson), or some other model. It’s like formalized folk psychology.

Your examples don’t ‘click’ for me (why do I care if intentional action requires special knowledge of what one is doing?), and neither do they for average folks I’d imagine. It feels like the more you say the more it sounds like it is expressing the warning signs Dennett points out for self-indulgent philosophy.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  William
5 years ago

William: I’m not sure why you think I missed Dennett’s point—I wasn’t even responding to it! I was instead gently suggesting that Nieztsche couldn’t have given anything like a decisive debunking of phil. action, since there was no such field around when he was writing.

But maybe I should respond to your main point: that philosophy of action (along with metaphysics) is like “chmess”—purely a priori, irrelevant to science, isolated from commonsense concerns, and intrinsically frivolous. This is a pretty hurtful thing to be told about a field one works in, but maybe I can convince you that the chmess comparison is less apt than it may have seemed.

1. Action theory has interesting consequences for straightforwardly empirical sciences—most obviously psychology, but also linguistics (it’s no coincidence that it’s called speech *act* theory!). Here’s one example that I happen to like: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10677-015-9576-6

There is also a fruitful back-and-forth between philosophers of action and neuroscientists who work on free will. Al Mele’s work—which Dennett has favorably reviewed—is a nice source here (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/are-we-free). So phil. action is sensitive to scientific findings and relevant to science itself.

2. Action theory has deep, well-known links to moral theory: look at Hume (Treatise 2.2.3), Kant (Groundwork), Aristotle (sentence one of the Nichomachean Ethics), Korsgaard (anything), or the literature on the killing/letting die distinction. As this last reference might suggest, there are also plenty of fascinating consequences for legal philosophy (Where’s the line between contemplating a murder and attempting one?) and the just war literature (Anscombe’s Intention was stimulated by bad action-theoretic arguments defending Truman’s order to drop the atomic bombs on Japan). There are even consequences for epistemology; the foundations of epistemic decision theory, for example, draw on the notion of direction of fit.

3. Philosophy of action is plenty interesting in its own right! Maybe you aren’t as interested in the knowledge-action link as I am (Michael Thompson calls practical knowledge a “sublime topic”—but not everyone is Michael Thompson). Still, I’m always fascinated by questions like “Do I have free will?” and “What’s the difference between actions and (other) events?” and even some of the smaller questions (“If I poison them on Monday and they die on Wednesday, when does the killing occur?”).

Maybe you’re not about to go read Intention. But I hope you at least see some value in it that goes beyond the working out of one’s chmess game. 🙂Report

William
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
5 years ago

I did not mean to be hurtful. I’m sorry I have been being overly dismissive of your field, and thank you for putting up with my casual rudeness. The first paper is interesting, there’s certainly a place for philosophy pointing out distinctions that psychologists miss while doing their work.

I remain dubious about aspects of the field however, though I do not wish to condemn the entire field. These are some concerns of mine, and I believe 2 and 3 express certain aspects of Nietzsche’s criticisms, which I believe are still relevant even though his criticism were directed at Platonic views on akrasia.

1) The fields seems to me to still be aiming to be formalized folk psychology, which I do not understand the wider value of. Most of the interesting work you describe is criticism of psychology failing to recognize certain distinctions.

2) The methodology, reducing things down to certain aspects (thoughts, beliefs, actions) and describing constant relations between them seems to be aiming to ‘clean up’ the actual mind, simplifying things beyond helping. And it does seem to be working a priori rather than a posteriori, your example of sensitivity to science is more pointing out how science actually does not matter to the free will question.

3) To go back to the akrasia example, why would I care about a definition of belief that doesn’t match up with either my experience of believing something or any certain brain state?

The historical examples you give are hit and miss for me, sentence one of Nicomachean Ethics is about teleology in metaphysics – not human action (and it is used to suggest how we should act, it is not an attempt to describe human action), Hume is a better example although I haven’t read his Treatise yet so I can’t comment much, I don’t remember anything like that in Groundwork (but it has been awhile).

Killing vs Letting Die, Just War Theory, Legal Theory, etc are more direct examples, and if you gave me some paper suggestions or something like that on the topic I would be inclined to give them a look, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The questions are still not hitting home for me, “when does the killing occur” and “what’s the difference between actions and other events” seem to be a matter of stipulating definitions, and while I’m doing my best to be charitable to the debate I’ve begun to get the impression the free will debate is as well. I have to admit your “is motivation goal-oriented?” catches my attention a little bit.Report

Cy
Cy
5 years ago

Sigh. Usefulness is besides the point. The question Dennett raises is whether anyone should *care* about metaphysics- even assuming that some things that aren’t useful might be worth caring about.

Truths about chmess are uninteresting not because they are useless—in fact, they might quite useful for winning chmess tournaments—but because they are completely isolated from anything else, in particular other areas of inquiry which might be interesting or worthwhile (even if useless from a “real-world utility” point of view). Whether some chmess-proposition P or not-P is true simply has no bearing on anything outside of chmess. So there’s no reason for anyone who studies anything else—sociology, physics, art, history, etc.—to give the slightest sh*t about what the folks in the chmess department are up to.

The analogous accusation for metaphysics, of course, is that it’s entirely self-contained, and so utterly irrelevant to anything else anyone might possibly care about. The putative rebuttal mentioned above that metaphysics, unlike chmess, is ‘about the world’ (i.e. involves a background presupposition of realism) simply does not address this. For even if metaphysics is ‘about the world’ and chmess isn’t metaphysics may still be entirely disconnected from any other investigation which is also about the world. Metaphysics being about the world doesn’t explain why any physicist, biologist, artist, or historian should care more about metaphysics than they do about chmess. It would also have to be shown that one of metaphysical propositions P and not-P being true would make any difference to any other field of inquiry. After all, if everyone is trying to talk about the same world then we should all be able to talk to each other about that world, in a common language, and be able to explain why what metaphysics says about the world is something anyone else who is also talking about the world should bother learning about.

Put Dennett’s challenge this way: if an area of human knowledge is like a website and the sum total of human knowledge is like the internet, the worry is that chess and analytic metaphysics are offline. Unless there are (hyper)links between areas then there is no reason why anyone in one place should care about anything elsewhere. Sure, there could be offline chmess games and offline metaphysics games but then nobody online need care about what anyone off the grid is doing. Maybe some folks like it this way; some people might well have fun playing chmess or metaphysics amongst small groups of like-minded gamers without a larger world to worry about. But this would be to concede Dennett’s challenge, especially in light of the fact that many areas of human inquiry do inform other areas of human inquiry. For example physics is obviously relevant to biology—biological creatures are constrained by physical natures—and biology is obviously relevant to sociology- social creatures may be constrained in their modes of organization by their biological natures or limitations, for example. So it’s not hard to make the case that those interested in how society should be structured should pay attention to other fields which have something to say about the physical constitutions and limits on the animals trying to structure themselves. This is the challenge analytic metaphysics must meet, and why Dennett uses undergrads and those outside analytic metaphysics as indicators- somebody not a metaphysician has to care! But if nobody outside of the chmess club should care about chmess, why should anyone outside the analytic metaphysics club care about analytic metaphysics?Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
Reply to  Cy
5 years ago

Well put, Cy. I even have the impression that much of metaphysics pretends to be relevant, but using a kind of shell game. “Isn’t it useful to know what things actually exist, or which sums actually form objects?” Well, I want to say–not in your PIckwickian sense of “exists” or “objects,” which I have never seen explained adequately. One philosopher I know who relished this stuff tried to make ontology compelling by saying it’s like trying to find out what would be on a comprehensive list that God was making of everything that exists. But I objected, it depends why God is making the list; is he trying to make a list of things we can talk about with him? Then he had better include people and holes, among other “things.” Did the devil challenge him by asking the right to annihilate anything not on the list? Then (probably) God can just list all the elementary particles and waves; anything supervening on these (people, holes, etc.) will be equally well protected. If no purpose is specified, then God can do whatever he pleases, and none of us should care. Give me a purpose for “exists” and I’ll tell you what exists (cf. Wittgenstein: tell me how you are looking for something and I will tell you what you are looking for). But that metaphysician, and many others, give me the impression that they think of “exists” (and many other terms like object, part, substance, etc.) as having some kind of deeper “reality” and meaning apart from the possible uses (which may vary from one context to another) to which we may put such classifications. I don’t understand what they mean, or think they mean, by this. And I am pretty certain that any results from such theorizing are useless to physics or any other sphere of human endeavor; if it ever is, then that fragment of the study becomes a subset of my purpose-based ontology. They are often using words that have a purpose, but in a context or setting which, when you read the fine print, often explicitly excludes purpose as part of the test for their meaning, under the illusion that this gets at something which is somehow “more real,” when instead it is by definition excluded from anything that can ever matter to anyone.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  Scott Forschler
5 years ago

> But that metaphysician, and many others, give me the impression that they think of “exists” (and many other terms like object, part, substance, etc.) as having some kind of deeper “reality” and meaning apart from the possible uses (which may vary from one context to another) to which we may put such classifications.

Nice!
Language is much overrated.
This is why other disciplines (esp math) replace language with more suitable formalisms. And define the scope and scale on which their statements apply.Report

Dan
Dan
Reply to  Andreas H.
4 years ago

“This is why other disciplines (esp math) replace language with more suitable formalisms. And define the scope and scale on which their statements apply.”

Yes.Other discinplines use more suitable formalisms. For example math uses logic.

If only metaphysicians used logic. Oh wait.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Chad B – I take your point about Dennett’s influence, Fair enough. But I don’t think it would necessarily contradict my comment on his usefulness. Moving on, I’d like to take issue with what you call ‘agnosticism’ in regard to metaphysics because the topic seems directly relevant to Dennett’s quoted comments, in which he admits that he does not understand metaphysics while making bold pronouncements about it. You say,

—“In the case of genuinely metaphysical claims, anything else than agnosticism would be arbitrary. Since I am agnostic about the claims (at least if there is no empirical way of checking whether they are true or false), I see no reason to try to resolve the puzzle. Instead, I can just ignore it.”

Is this agnosticism? Or is it a complete disbelief in metaphysics, the power of human thought and the reasonableness of the universe? You appeal to this disbelief as the justification for your agnosticism on metaphysical questions, and this seems like cheating. It is a widely-shared disbelief, no doubt, but as it is not backed up by a demonstrable argument and so is a voluntary interpretation of metaphysics. In this case it seems incorrect to call it agnosticism. To justify agnosticism on metaphysical questions one would have to logically prove that it is justified. Or so it seems to me. Otherwise it would be the adoption of a very strong opinion.

Dennnett seems to take the same approach.

“…. he confidently declares “analytic metaphysics” to be “self-indulgent, clever play” that’s “willfully cut off from any serious issues” and populated by philosophers who “concoct cute counterarguments that require neither technical training nor empirical knowledge.”

Justin comments, “Something tells me the analytic metaphysicians in the audience might have something to say about that.”

I’ll say they do. I cannot grasp why he is taken seriously. He would be the first to admit that he doesn’t understand metaphysics since this is a founding axiom for his argument against it. which is that it is incomprehensible. His writings entirely depend on not respecting metaphysics since this leaves him free to argue for ideas that don’t work and that don’t explain anything. I do not detect a love of truth but of interested sophistry. I feel he does philosophy a great disservice.Report

Nicola
Nicola
5 years ago

Please can you provide a citation for this pie?Report

JT
JT
5 years ago

It might be just me, but it seems to be the height of self-indulgence to draw one’s influence and prestige in one’s own field in order to weaponize one’s confusion and ignorance about other areas for throwing shade at people who ask different questions using different methods.Report

The Sad-Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
The Sad-Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Reply to  JT
5 years ago

In other words, to do what philosophers have been doing to the continental tradition for over a century.Report

Cody Gilmore
Cody Gilmore
5 years ago

I do analytic metaphysics mainly because I find the questions intrinsically interesting. But here are some examples of ways in which analytic metaphysics is useful / relevant to outsiders. Maybe others have pointed them out already. (1) Analytic metaphysics sheds light on abortion. What I ever a fetus? Was I ever a zygote? To think rigorously about these questions, you need to understand the main general theories of persistence (endurantism, perdurantism, stage theory), composition (unrestricted composition, compositional nihilism, moderate theories, . . .), and personal identity (animalism, psychological approaches, . . ) (2) Analytic metaphysics is (or so I’ve read) useful for biomedical informatics in computer science. It turns out to be helpful to build the transitivity of parthood, e.g., into certain systems of automated reasoning. See Barry Smith’s webpage.
http://www.buffalo.edu/cas/philosophy/faculty/faculty_directory/smith-b.html Also, there is a whole journal called “Applied Ontology”. Not an oxymoron!Report

William
Reply to  Cody Gilmore
5 years ago

I was thinking of Barry Smith too as a counterexample against analytic metaphysics as an example, especially considering I doubt we’d get something like formal ontology without a great deal of ‘self-indulgent’ philosophy.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Cody Gilmore
5 years ago

Analytic metaphysics has plenty of relevance to moral, social and political questions, as well as other issues of value. In my experience, those dismissing analytic metaphysics generally just want to assume that their own metaphysical view is correct, so see the debate of theories they don’t like as pointless.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Cody Gilmore
5 years ago

“What I ever a fetus? Was I ever a zygote? To think rigorously about these questions, you need to understand the main general theories of persistence (endurantism, perdurantism, stage theory), composition (unrestricted composition, compositional nihilism, moderate theories, . . .), and personal identity (animalism, psychological approaches, . . )”

But metaphysicians have not found the correct theories of persistence, composition and personal identity. Therefore, metaphysics does not help me understand abortion, at least if understanding is connected to having correct explanations. Was a person ever a fetus? Well, it depends on which metaphysical theory you pick! None of them is justified so just pick whatever pleases your aesthetic taste or suits your ethical views!

If debates about the permissibility of abortion require settling debates in speculative metaphysics, then I would suggest reformulating the questions about abortion in such a way that they depend less on metaphysical assumptions and can actually be answered.Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
Reply to  Cody Gilmore
5 years ago

I don’t think so. So much of metaphysics–especially including all the discussion around Animalism, including its opponents–seems to operate under the delusion that there is One True Theory of an object’s composition, persistence, etc., and we just have to figure out what that is. But what may be true in chmess may not be true in chess, and vice versa, and asking for a grand theory of the whole business simply obfuscates rather than clarifies anything. Look, Mary Anne Warren made this clear enough in her 40-year old article on abortion: there is a sense in which the fetus is “human,” another sense in which it is not. The real question is not which sense is “true” or “correct,” as if there could only be one. This is not Highlander. The interesting question is, which sense is morally relevant? We can put this into ontological terms if you like, but the answer is much the same. There is one sense in which I was once a fetus, and another sense in which I never was; similarly there is a sense in which I will one day be a corpse, and another in which I will never be. It’s fine to distinguish these different senses, explain & explicate them, compare them to other senses, talk about which ones are morally relevant (and in what way, as there is more than one sense of this as well), and so forth. And if we want to be somehow “pure” in how we use the term identity, we might instead want to talk about other relations between myself and a fetus or corpse, like continuer, etc., but again we must talk about how in one sense I can be continued by a corpse, and not in another. All that would be useful metaphysics, and doubtless someone somewhere is doing this (indeed, Warren in some sense already did, in different words). But when many metaphysicians talk as if there must be one ultimately real and privileged sense of this concept, one final, context-free, and universally-relevant answer to the question “but was I *really* a fetus?”, they are just inviting confusion, pretending to be relevant by using terms that make sense in some context but taking them outside of that context (language on holiday).

To put it another way; a metaphysician might offer an apparently airtight, rock-solid argument that the clay Lump of Monday is (“really is”) the very same thing as the David statue on Wednesday, that one unitary thing having only been reshaped on Tuesday. OK, fine. But none of this changes the fact that if someone had smashed Lump on Monday they would owe someone $1 for the damaged clay, while anyone smashing David on Wednesday would owe $100 for destruction of a statue. The airtight argument for their identity would simply demonstrate that *that* sense of identity has precisely nothing to do with anything’s moral or aesthetic value at a given time, or anyone’s obligations respecting the same. If you convince me that I “was” once a fetus, that merely shows that my life was once not very valuable (as it now is), not that abortion is wrong. It’s not that the weight of identity is outweighed by yet other factors. Once intentionally separated from moral issues and given some Pickwickian sense in the rarefied air of ontological debate, the statement about their identity doesn’t even *start* to be relevant to the latter question. Call your sense of identity real, privileged, ultimate, or whatever–the more you separate it from any context in which it matters, basing it on something other than substantive arguments about the moral or other purposes for which we use such concepts, then (in exact proportion) the less the “clarified” concepts matter. If thinking “rigorously” about them means finding the One Right Sense of Identity, then this is neither truly rigorous, nor sheds any light upon other very important issues.Report

Jonathan Surovell
Jonathan Surovell
5 years ago

I think it would be helpful in these discussions to say what we mean by ‘analytic metaphysics’. A commenter above mentions Kripke as a paradigmatic case. Quine’s definition of ontology is also often credited with resurrecting metaphysics within the analytic tradition. But these are two completely different conceptions of the subfield. For Quine, ontology is just regimenting scientific theories into the most suitable language and then figuring out what the theory’s variables range over; Quinean ontology is just the syntax and semantics of scientific theories. Is that program cut off from reality? Kripke’s method of using intuitions about, e.g., modality and reference will of course give rise to a very different set of metaphysical questions. But if one finds these questions pointless, I’d conjecture that the reasons why won’t easily apply to the Quinean project.

Quinean naturalism vs. apriorism is just one way of carving up work in metaphysics. I imagine there are others and that these would make further trouble for sweeping generalizations like Dennett’s.Report

Scallop
Scallop
5 years ago

Dennett complains that analytic metaphysics deals with problems that are of no “intrinsic interest” and are just artefacts of the way a debate was set up. Surely that’s true to a degree, but it’s a tough philosophical problem to figure out what’s an artefact and what’s not, and which faulty assumptions are generating the artefacts (and what’s wrong with those assumptions). To show exactly what’s wrong with contemporary analytic metaphysics–what assumptions all work in the field shares and why they’re false–would (to my mind) be an important and highly interesting work of metaphysics (past attempts at doing this are interesting works of metaphysics, but they never quite seem to work–although perhaps Dennett disagrees). But the devil is in the details, and Dennett isn’t offering any.Report

Dave Estlund
Dave Estlund
5 years ago

I see no evidence that Dennett is complaining about some philosophy’s uselessness. After all, he rails against projects that are “of no intrinsic value.” And he proposes as one rough test whether non-philosophers are interested in the issues, or can be made to see their interest–which goes well beyond the useful, I think. And he invents Chmess because he is pointedly not complaining about Chess. He is pretty clearly not siding with the party of usefulness, and seems (to his credit) to have a much broader view of what is valuable intellectual work than that. And he still thinks some kinds of current work fall beyond the pale. His challenge is more interesting (to me) than a paean to practical value. Like many (umm, infinitely many) math puzzles, surely many conceivable philosophical puzzles are mere curiosities and not important. Practicality doesn’t tell us which ones. But what does? Great problem.Report

bottomless-pit
bottomless-pit
5 years ago

It would be interesting to hear some of the ‘big shots’ in current analytic metaphysics answer Dennett’s charge — your Kit Fines, Ted Siders, Amie Thomassons, Jonathan Schaffers… Perhaps worthy of an issue of ‘Philosophers on…’? Defend yourselves! 😉Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  bottomless-pit
5 years ago

Isn’t Amie Thomasson a critic? She is complaining about the endless debates in analytic metaphysics in her book Ontology Made Easy. Of course, the problem with her approach is that it is just more philosophy instead of something that would actually lead to progress, such as scientific ontology.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
5 years ago

I can see some ways the discussion of metaphysical claims can be “useful”:
– To respond to, compare and categorize metaphysical claims already existing, e.g. from religion.
– To categorize and generalize existing responses to existing claims.
– To discuss the consequences of various existing or hypothetical metaphysical positions on ethical questions.
– To understand and compare historic philosophical pieces, and historic models of the world.
– To develop a framework that would allow to respond to, compare and categorize future metaphysical claims.

In short: Either you deal with existing claims, or you try to contribute to a model that works for more than just one specific collection of claims. Either you discuss chess (an existing game that people care about), or you discuss universal game theory. Made-up examples like “chmess” can sometimes be useful for universal game theory. But their usefulness is limited. You should not spend too much time with one made-up example.

A problem with existing metaphysical claims (esp. from religion) is that they are often so fuzzy and ill-defined that it is hard to draw any definitive conclusions. And that often neither the axioms nor the conclusions are testable.

A problem with theoretical ethical consequences for given claims is that people don’t really care. E.g. imagine some statements in a religion allow the conclusion that it is better to just kill yourself. But you observe that the vast majority of believers do not kill themselves. You could tell them that their behavior is inconsistent. But what’s the point? We can assume they are more likely to alter/reinterpret the original claims than to actually kill themselves.

A problem with more abstract and generalized metaphysical discussions is that whatever conclusions you come up with will be based on unreliable tools such as human language. Also, again, you cannot test any of your conclusions. So, it may be ill-advised for any future researchers to take your conclusions for granted. But they can take your arguments as a starting point.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Andreas – Mostly agree. I feel that you sum up the underlying problem very nicely here.

“A problem with existing metaphysical claims (esp. from religion) is that they are often so fuzzy and ill-defined that it is hard to draw any definitive conclusions. And that often neither the axioms nor the conclusions are testable.”

This is true but the crucial word would be ‘often’. Sometimes those axioms and conclusions are clear, unambiguous, testable, systematic, verifiable and unfalsifiable. Unfortunately these are usually ignored along with all the rest, which would be the reason why almost everybody assumes that metaphysics is inconclusive and has no solution.

This is the problem with the entire discussion here. I feel, that nobody credits metaphysics with the ability to solve problems. This means that the defenses of it are very weak, almost apologetic. I’d want to go on the front foot and say that metaphysics is demonstrably more important and useful than physics, but only if we interpret its results as a Buddhist would, as telling us something about the world. At this time its results are almost completely ignored in the style of Dennett. He even recommends that we ignore them. There be dragons…Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

How can something that is unfalsifiable tell us anything about the world?

Or maybe we are using the term “falsifiable” differently. So instead, can you provide examples for such axioms and conclusions that you consider “metaphysical”?Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Sure thing. Do you remember a while back DN asked us to post suggestions for what we would say to our descendants if there was a catastrophe and all philosophical knowledge was about to be lost? I posted one sentence, This received 20 ‘likes’, more than any other post of mine, suggesting that it was not a contentious sentence. It was,

‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible”

For me this would be the most important result of metaphysics and the clearest signpost to a solution. (I have an essay on this and three further metaphysical statements, but I’d want to email a link and not post it here.)

I take your point about unfalsifiable statements, but any true metaphysical statement will be unfalsifiable. I’m not using the word to mean unfalsifiable in principle, (teapots in orbit etc) but unfalsifiable in fact, as is the above statement. On reflection this may be an deviant use of the term that I should have clarified.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

I am new to this forum so I do not “remember” old posts 🙂

A useful definition of “falsifiable” would be “If it was actually false, we could possibly find evidence to show that it is false.” If it the statement is in fact true, we will never find such evidence. But can still be falsifiable. I assume this matches your term “unfalsifiable in principle”.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

This said, I am still waiting for examples 🙂Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Yes – I think that is what I’m getting at with ‘unfalsifiable’. I may be guilty of sloppiness on this one.

Did I not give a clear example? I made a metaphysical statement that must be true if Buddhist metaphysics is correct, making it a foundational statement for this religion and more generally the Perennial philosophy. It is provable, so it stands as an exception to your (often justified) criticism of religious claims. This claim is not even contentious.

Another example would be ‘The universe is a unity’, but this would be a more complex case since it would need a lot of explanation and justification. Space is tight, so I picked the easiest of all these claims, one which is well-known to be true.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

> I made a metaphysical statement that must be true if Buddhist metaphysics is correct, making it a foundational statement for this religion and more generally the Perennial philosophy.

Where? I do not see it.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

The statement was – All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

It is a religious claim because many people would read this statement as a proof of the neutral metaphysical position endorsed by the the Buddhists and their like, which some would call ‘true religion’.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

As for “unity”, I do not even know what this means. The term is already vague when talking about everyday objects. And it is even more vague when talking about “the universe”. Even worse: Depending what you understand by “unity” and “universe”, you could argue that “unity” is part of the definition of “universe”. Is “universe” our known space/time continuum which we assume started at the big bang? Or does it include other “universes” and even stuff outside of time? (what others may label “cosmos”).
Assuming we are talking about our current universe in the context of multiple universes, and say it is a “unity”. What does this even mean? That it is unique? That is is isolated from other universes? That it has a continuous identity? Or that we treat it as a “unity” when talking about it?
Depending on the interpretation, the statement is either meaningless, or it is untestable and thus arbitrary, or it is better expressed in more specific language.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Yes. As I noted, the topic is too big for the venue.

As for the statement i posted, I feel you are wriggling on the hook. It’s simple enough to define the terms. For ‘positive’ you could read ‘extreme, polarised’ or ‘partial’. Kant uses ‘selective’. Kant had no trouble arriving at the truth of the statement.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

Or do you mean the “‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible”?
Again this depends on the definition of “positive metaphysical position”. Depending how you define it, you get very close to the “logically indefensible” being part of the definition, or being equivalent to a part of the definition.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

@PeterJ I am going to reply here, I think we hit the thread nesting limit 🙂

About “‘All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible”.
If by “positive metaphysical positions” we mean stuff like god claims, specifically those where the god / magic thingie does not interact with the physical world in a way we could test, then yes I very much agree with the statement. As would most people who label themselves atheist/agnostic. And they would probably reject the label “religion”. If the Buddhists agree, good on them. But they usually still have some metaphysical baggage going on.

However:
Most religions also contain claims that are in fact testable. Such as statements about creation, the age of the earth. So, most religions are not pure metaphysics.
Also there can be statements like “metaphysical claim A and metaphysical claim B are logically incompatible”. Such a claim can indeed be valid and defensible. (But they are not “positive claims”, so there is no problem with your statement). The problem is that the person who made the metaphysical claims will either not care, or slightly modify their claims to avoid the conflict.

The statement is worth making, but I do not find it especially new or groundbreaking or rocket science. I mean we know this since quite a while don’t we? Of course people may still desire to believe stuff without evidence. People also still smoke cigarettes even though they should know better.

My point is: Most of the relevant conclusions have already been made. And maybe there are a few more things yet to explore. But I can see how there could be a wall beyond which it becomes pointless. If this is Dennett’s point, I agree with it.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Also: Religious claims often have the taste of being man-made. I mean a dude riding across the sky in an burning chariot (a sun god, I don’t remember which one). Or a dude telling people how they should dress. This all looks suspiciously man-made. One could argue that it is not plausible that a god who created the universe, after waiting billions of years, is now telling people how they should dress, or what they should eat on a Friday.

This does not invalidate your statement.
I just want to point out that a “neutral metaphysical position” does not mean that every claim should be regarded as equally likely. If we have a wide range of claims that are (mostly) mutually exclusive, very specific, and smell like they are man-made, then the default position is not for every claim to be given a 50% chance, but to reject those claims until better evidence is provided. And hereby I do not mean to assume that the opposite of the claim is true, but to treat it like a guess and nothing more. So you act as if the claim had not been made at all.
If “neutral position” means exactly that, then I am ok with it. If it means to give every claim a 50:50 chance, then no.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
5 years ago

Actually I only now had a look at the Wikipedia definition of metaphysics: “1. Ultimately, what is *there*? (2. What *is it like*?)”

Also “There are two broad conceptions about what “world” is studied by metaphysics. The strong, first assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist independently of any observer, so that the subject is the most fundamental of all sciences. The weaker, second assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist inside the mind of an observer, so the subject becomes a form of introspection and conceptual analysis.”

This question is a recipe for a dead-end debate.

We have perceptions / observations.
We build a world model based on these perceptions, both consciously and unconsciously. This works surprisingly well, in that it allows predictions about future observations.
Part of this model is “myself” and “others”, “time”, and the continuity of consciousness. Also the model itself is part of the model.
Part of this model is also that we can discuss and share our world model with others, and enhance our own world model with 2nd hand observations from other people. This works so well that we can talk about a “collective world model”.
Both the individual and the collective world model are a bit fuzzy – but so what.

In physics, or in a simulation game, “model” usually means a collection of math and data that allows predictions about stuff. It is very well-defined, but limited. The model that I am talking about is more high-level and less well-defined. Especially, it includes the idea of stuff we don’t know yet, or will never know, and stuff that we think to know but we are wrong about.

There can also be models of fictional worlds, where we use our model-building toolkit without the need for any observation. Actually this can be quite a useful exercise.

As for the model of the “real world”, the one which is based on observations, this actually works so well that for most or all practical purposes we do not need to distinguish between the “real world” and our model of it.

Language and science are designed to explain and share aspects of world models. Especially, the term “exists” or “being” is designed to allow statements about aspects of a world model.

Using these terms, or really any terms in any language, “outside” of whichever model of the world you are choosing, is futile. Because what you are instead doing is to build a new model that encloses the given model. You wrap the box into a bigger box. You can do this forever, but you won’t actually achieve anything. You are still constructing boxes.

The problem is that your extra layers of enclosing boxes are completely arbitrary.
Let’s say you start with a “physics box” or “science box”, which we define as the projection or combination of all collective boxes that are based on observations and some level math and logic. (Actually math and logic are fine, as long as they don’t use poorly defined concepts from human language.)

Now you build a “metaphysics box” around that. Based on the prior definition, this stuff is no longer based on observation, and therefore arbitrary.

Oh, wait. Not so fast!
Actually you can enclose the “physics model” into a “people observing the world and talking about physics” model, which you then wrap into a “brain cells firing electric signals” and “life evolving to have brain cells” model which then can be wrapped into “people talk about brain cells and evolution”. And “people who talk about models of people talking about brain cells thinking about physics” etc. Yes, this is circular. So what? Also it is “meta”. Hence, “metaphysics”. Yay!

So, it is not completely fruitless. But there are limitations how far you can reasonably go with this.

The somewhat circular model I presented above is based on stuff that we can actually observe. Physics, brain cells, social behavior, conscious thought, ramblings of historic philosophers. (Whether or not we can verify their claims, we do have evidence of their writings.)

But without these observations, the model could have easily looked different: Replace “brain cells” with “soul”, add some god or magic, voila.

And even with these observations, we can easily wrap more layers around, which are based on nothing but speculation or fiction. These would not be testable, not allow any predictions, and really be quite pointless.

So my conclusion would be: If metaphysics walks too far away from observation, it yields crappy, unreliable and useless results.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

Yes. But if it takes those observations to be of truly real phenomena then it has bypassed metaphysics in favour of unexamined speculation. It would be the job of metaphysics to decide in what sense and to what extent they are real. It is not the job of science to address this question and it doesn’t have the tools.

Metaphysics always produces the same result, which I stated above. I’m not aware of a philosopher who has reached a different result (as opposed to reaching a different guess). So I don’t really ‘get’ the problem with models. I’d agree that observations are the starting point, internal or external, but as long as those observations are not ignored then just our day to day observations of the world would be enough. We seem to exist, and this needs an explanation.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Andreas – If you’re still around. I see that I made a mistake. The example I gave was of a metaphysical statement that is demonstrably true. This confused the issues. For a religious claim I should have stated…

All positive (selective, partial) metaphysical positions are false.

This cannot be proved in logic so it can be called a religious claim, or an interpretation of metaphysics, and It is made by the Perennial philosophy. In respect of philosophy this could be called its central claim. It is made very plausible by the logical indefensibility of all such positions but this would not quite be a proof.

We can’t really delve into this here but I wanted to clear up my misleading choice of example.Report

Andreas H.
Andreas H.
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

This claim is indefensible, unjustified.

> It is made very plausible by the logical indefensibility of all such positions

For someone who does not understand how logic works, maybe.

If you have no way to obtain any information about something, but you still make a claim, then we can conclude that your claim is unjustified. But this does not mean it is false. It could still be true by chance.

Why make the unjustified and unnecessary leap from “unjustified” to “false”? So that others can write books about it?

Sorry if this sounds angry. I do not even know if we disagree about anything 🙂Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Andreas H.
5 years ago

I see that you do not follow what I’m saying. That’s okay. This is not the place to deal with these issues. I’d be happy to chat elsewhere if you want to pursue them.Report

Robert Riehemann
Robert Riehemann
5 years ago

Remarks similar to Dennett’s comments have been made for many years regarding formalist mathematics (see the Stanford Encyclopedia article). My first PhD adviser in mathematics, an analyst, used to complain loudly that algebraists could prove a couple of theorems from a useless set of axioms and get publication. One difficulty with such remarks, duly noted by Dennett, is the time needed for an apparently useless result to become useful—a kind of response time. As Dennett remarks, it took thousands of years to find a 200 move mating net in chess. Similarly it took over 2000 years to find viable alternatives to Euclid’s parallel postulate—a question often inspired by aesthetic considerations. But now every gps device requires the use of those modified postulates to compute the changing rate for the passage of time in a gravitational potential well if the device is to work properly. And recently, gravitational waves, completely dependent on the modified postulates for their explanation, and which may create a new scientific field, gravitational wave astronomy, have been detected. I doubt that Proclus, who may have first reported the criticisms of this point, was motivated by practical criteria along the lines that Dennett considers.

The response time problem is, simply, the difficult project of predicting if or when any given abstract result will be useful. And so Dennett repeats and critiques a standard solution: “…let a thousand flowers bloom.” Given the difficulty of most projections regarding humans, their behaviors and concerns, “usefulness” seems a rather poor criteria to offer as a valuation for intellectual research. Of course it is a common enough desire to want to advise students on ways to become employable. This was, according to the first footnote, the inspiration for the article. But if that is the practical goal, then it might be wise to take a line from Machiavelli and say, “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” Or, looking at political news, one might suggest the practice of justifying egregious domestic spying, extra-judicial drone killings, and other pro-war activities around which so much money accumulates.Report